I feel the amount of anticipation and pressure on this film and David Fincher to deliver can’t be understated.
“Mank” is the latest film from director David Fincher, and his first since 2014’s “Gone Girl.” Written by his father Jack Fincher, the film follows writer Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) and his development of the script for “Citizen Kane” in 1940; Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Burke, and Charles Dance also star.
I’m a decent fan of David Fincher’s work, from “Se7en” to “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (one of the biggest crimes of the 21st century is us never getting a proper sequel to that), and of course the director’s crowning achievement “The Social Network” (the actual biggest crime of the century is him losing Best Director to “The King’s Speech’s” Tom Hooper). Fincher took some time away from directing films to focus on developing the series “House of Cards” and “Mindhunter” for Netflix but he is back with “Mank,” a film written by his father Jack (who passed away in 2003). Originally set to star Kevin Spacey in the late-90s, the film is a witty and meticulous view of the old Hollywood system and the demons that men with power face, and while it may not rank among Fincher’s best works, I feel it is one of 2020’s better films nevertheless.
For the longest time, Gary Oldman was one of those actors that everyone knew and loved but he never seemed to get the dramatic roles that matched his talents. He finally won an Oscar for his turn as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour” (whether he deserved it over Timothée Chalamet is another story), and here he is as solid as expected. Oldman’s Mankiewicz is dry and witty, except when he’s sloppy and drunk, and always seems to be the smartest man in the room. It isn’t groundbreaking work, but as he himself says, “you cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours, all you can hope is to leave the impression of one;” and we come away knowing exactly the kind of guy Mank was.
My favorite performance comes from Amanda Seyfried, who portrays actress Marion Davies. Seyfried is sympathetic and while she has less scenes than you would imagine, her presence is felt as a young woman who feels like she has to keep her opinions quiet in a room full of rich old men. The rest of the cast is expectedly good, including Arliss Howard as studio head Louis B. Mayer and Tom Burke as Orson Welles, who perfectly nails Welles’ deep voice and charismatic mannerisms.
Outside Aaron Sorkin’s quips, this is my favorite kind of script. The old-timey rat-a-tat dialogue that is just so sharp and witty that it makes you chuckle even though the line wasn’t technically a joke (“how’s the leg?” Wells asks an injured Mank. “Oh you know, knee bone connected to the thigh bone” he replies). This could land Jack Fincher an Oscar nomination 25 years after he completed the script and more than 17 years after his death, a feat that would mirror August Wilson and his work on “Fences” a few years back.
David Fincher projects always look great, typically with a nice color pallet (“Se7en” is yellow, “Gone Girl” blue, “House of Cards” grey, etc). Here the film is shot in black-and-white, the reason it took Fincher so long to find a studio to back the project, and emphasizes shadows. It is clearly an homage to “Citizen Kane” and the films of old, and at times it is pretty to look at. It never comes off in the same stunning and almost hypnotic way as say, “Roma,” but the cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt works great in certain sequences.
Now the film has a lot on its mind, from the 1934 government race to the old studio system, and not all of it blends perfectly together. Things feel disjointed at times, with the narrative constantly jumping back and forth between Mank trying to keep his socialist views quiet in a Republican-oriented industry (which makes you chuckle when you look at Hollywood today) and his 1940 writing of the script injured in a bed. Also, despite the true authorship of the “Citizen Kane” script being both a big historical controversy and a selling point of the film, the subject is treated as an afterthought until Fincher throws it in (the film itself ends rather abruptly).
“Mank” may not be for everyone but if you love movies, Hollywood, and alcoholism (or the seething criticism of the three) then you should get you kicks here. Do I wish this was an all-timer and not “just” a good movie? Sure, the pieces certainly were there. But I found myself engaged from start to finish, and look forward to revisiting the world again.
Critics Rating: 8/10